best of 2021

What Made a TV Show Great in 2021?

Our critics break down what goes into naming the best of the year.

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos Courtesy of Networks
Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos Courtesy of Networks

Year-end lists are fun and contentious pieces of writing, but most of the fun takes place outside the list itself. The process of list-making is a weird act of trying to balance personal responses with some imagined objective measurement, and while lists are about the year in culture, they’re also portraits of the people who wrote them. This year, we’re posting not just our lists but also a conversation among critics Jen Chaney, Roxana Hadadi, and Kathryn VanArendonk about how we made them, what this year in TV was like, and what we’re furious we had to leave off.

Kathryn VanArendonk: This was a good year in TV — it was also a bad year in TV. It was an everything year in TV because TV is too many things now. It’s a giant monolith of cultural production. My own impression, looking over the list of things I watched in the past year, is there were exquisite seasons of television and there were crummy ones, but the vast yawning middle of “just fine” grows larger each year. There is a place for “just fine,” don’t get me wrong. I personally enjoyed Peacock’s Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol way more than it had any right to be enjoyed by anyone. But do we need that much “just fine”? Does the ever-increasing bulk of it dilute our ability to feel like it was a good year in TV? I don’t know.

Jen Chaney: I’m inclined to lean toward “it was a good year” based on the width and breadth of quality television. I’ve recently gone through the process of voting for both best television and movies for various groups I belong to, and choosing the best TV was a much more challenging proposition because there was simply so much. Which is not to say the movies are bad, but 2021 was a super-weird year for movies, and so many of the great ones are bunched up in the last month or so. Whereas I felt like I could find something exceptional to watch on TV at any point in the year.

Roxana Hadadi: It also felt like the first year where we really felt the impact of all these new streaming services creating their own original content. I put a lot of that streamer-created storytelling firmly in the “good” column. It allowed for perspectives that are typically underrepresented in mainstream TV and pop culture to be foregrounded, as in We Are Lady Parts or Genera+ion or Y: The Last Man. On the other hand, we hit upon the nostalgia ceiling too often this year with reboots or remakes that lost some of the appeal of the original series. I’m thinking about Gossip Girl, Cowboy Bebop, and Walker, all of which struggled to find their own identities. The impact of having more also means we’re bound to sometimes look backward instead of forward, which isn’t the stuff that excites me.

KV: The so-much-ness is something I wrestle with a lot. That said, there’s an important distinction to find between “comfort TV” and mediocre Netflix churn, and for me, it’s a really clarifying one in how I approached my list. There are absolutely some series on it that I consider “comfort TV,” most obviously the Channel 5–PBS Masterpiece series All Creatures Great and Small. One of the most comforting things I watched this year, no question. And there are other series I was sad to leave off my list but about which I feel very similarly — especially The Baby-Sitters Club. Those series are comfort TV, but they are also made with such care, and they do not feel like anything other than themselves. All Creatures could so easily have been a cookie-cutter costume drama production, but its performances, the production design, and the combination of tenderness and brutality in its writing are what make it stand out from other series with similar DNA. The thing about mediocre Netflix shows is that, more and more, regardless of what characters or story or genre they claim to be, they all feel a little like one another. Cowboy Bebop feels like an (admittedly better) version of The Umbrella Academy. Lots of Netflix series have that strange sameness to them, a product of plotting and bulk and indistinctiveness.

JC: In the interest of not blaming Netflix for everything, I also felt the churn this year with all the Marvel shows building on existing IP. I did put one Marvel series on my list, WandaVision, because it felt so different from what I expected from Marvel and was so surprisingly poignant. That’s a big factor in what I look for as far as distinguishing a great show from a merely good or average one: Did it surprise me? If it’s a new series, does it have a full sense of itself right out of the gate? I find myself thinking hard about that because of the volume of television. That’s also why I ultimately omitted some shows from my list that were among my favorites this year, such as Succession and Ted Lasso. I wanted to focus on things that didn’t get as much attention, like Work in Progress or The Underground Railroad, for instance. It is so frustrating when something really special exists and gets lost in the sea of TV.

KV: That’s always part of my calculus too. It’s why Station Eleven is my top show. I think it’s incredible, so it’s not as though there’s an inflation process happening here. But it’s also a series I’m worried won’t attract as much attention as I’d like. Putting it on the list is a way of staking a claim in that series being worth people’s time. It’s also a miniseries, which is a recent trend in TV that I am happy to see well-represented in all of our lists. My secret is I think miniseries are actually a totally separate genre, distinct from the long-running series format that much of modern TV evolved from. But because I have given up the battle of asking people to see them as related but separate narrative forms, I will happily accept them as TV and be glad to do it.

RH: Give me all the miniseries you have! Few things frustrate me more than the sense that a TV series is content to progress without an endgame, and so I relish the trend toward self-contained stories. That’s reflected on my list in The Underground Railroad, Mare of Easttown, and Midnight Mass. And even though The White Lotus will have a second season, creator Mike White said it will be a separate story from the first Hawaii-set narrative. I’m all for that.

I’ve found some other trends this past year less successful: Did anyone else sense that practically every other series was operating within a split timeline? Made for Love, Dr. Death, Lisey’s Story, Dopesick, Foundation,

KV: The split timeline! Why! Just tell the damn thing in order for a minute, I beg you!

JC: On the other hand, Station Eleven has a split timeline, and it’s great. It also does the split timeline more inventively and elegantly than a lot of series do.

RH: What did you two think about the weekly versus binge discourse this year? Shows like Succession, Ted Lasso, Mare of Easttown, WandaVision, and The White Lotus stuck to the weekly model and generated conversation constantly. I prefer having space to breathe between episodes and to analyze and absorb — in particular for series like Mare of Easttown and The White Lotus, which had so much going on narratively and so many interrelationship twists. Some viewers and critics complained that Succession and Ted Lasso dragged, but I didn’t think so. I thought both built momentum over each week.

JC: All the shows you mention would have not had the same impact if they had dropped all at once. People’s responses to Ted Lasso, for example, varied wildly because some episodes felt “slower” from a story advancement perspective — see the Christmas one. I was fascinated by that conversation. To me, that rollout and the response to it is reflective of what TV was originally supposed to be: serial storytelling that unfolds week to week. On the other hand, there are some series I think work better when watched in binge fashion. But I appreciate that every platform is not defaulting to the binge approach.

KV: And there are always exceptions. Binge models create a short tail of relevance and conversation, and shows die off over a weekend … except for Squid Game. Weekly releases allow interesting shows to build buzz, except for Y: The Last Man. We long for comfort television, except for Succession, which feels like being raked over hot coals. The hottest shows are on streaming platforms, except for Yellowstone, consistently the most-watched drama on TV. Apple TV+ shows are compelling and network TV no longer holds a candle to cable or streaming — except so many people this fall told me they only wanted to talk about Fox’s The Big Leap.

RH: Unlike, say, Apple’s Mr. Corman, which I did not want to discuss with anyone at all, ever.

JC: It was not as bad as all that, she yells, knowing no one agrees with her!

KV: Sorry, Jen, you’re on an island by yourself on this one. Then the question becomes, of course, how do you take all this and turn it into a list and rank it from one to ten?

JC: For me, the dirty little secret of list-making is that if you ask me on a different day, my list might look slightly different. Certainly the order might change. I felt strongly about making We Are Lady Parts my No. 1 simply because I derived so much joy from it and that carried more weight with me at the moment that I was making my list. But could or would I switch some of the places of some of the shows on my list? Sure. If I had seen the episode where Roman sends the dick pic before submitting my list, might I have changed my mind about including Succession? Perhaps! I have come to terms with the idea that these lists are a snapshot in time of my opinions.

RH: I think the distinguishing factor for me in terms of what makes a TV show “good” is whether I’m still thinking about it, smiling fondly on a performance, or still laughing at some joke or bit of physical comedy? Or did it leave my brain immediately? That sort of reaction can be telling in sorting through a list. Lingering impact is useful.

KV: Fully agree. At some point, you watch enough TV that it’s chiefly a question of whether a show stuck with you.

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What Made a TV Show Great in 2021?